We spent six nights in Dinan. It’s a Middle Ages town and apart from a new kitchen and bathroom, we think our apartment hadn’t changed much since then. It was all ancient creaky floorboards, exposed beams and plastered walls. With a little balcony overlooking one of the squares, we could almost touch the gargoyles on the church across the lane. Perfect.
The historic heart of the town is compact and it’s nice just to wander around.
Meander down to the port and there’s a string of cafes and a riverside path with small pleasure boats tied up alongside.
Dinan is close to lots of interesting places and hence makes a good base. We headed to the coast for a hike along the GR34 starting at Pointe Du Grouin, the westernmost tip of the Bay of Mont Saint-Michel.
From the headland the path winds along the cliffs with fine views to the south.
Just off the headland, rocky Ile des Landes is an important breeding ground for giant cormorants and is closed to humans.
Heading south the path dips down to lovely little villages like Port Mer. Beloved of French painters in the 18th and 19th centuries, it’s got a 1960s family beach feel to it now.
Out to sea, there are reminders of conflicts long ago. A fort was built on Ile des Rimans in the 18th century. The island is now privately owned by a wealthy French entrepreneur, complete with heliport and swimming pool built against the fort wall.
And on the cliffs, reminders of more recent conflicts. Here was a concrete casement and gun remains from WWII, now plastered with anti-war graffiti.
We are not sure how far we walked. The GR34 is more than 2,000 kms in total, along almost the entire coast of Brittany from Saint-Nazaire to Mont Saint-Michel. We just walked until lunchtime, had a picnic, wandered back with a stop for hot chocolate in Port Mer. Nice.
We’d been interested in visiting St Malo since reading Anthony Doerr’s novel All the Light We Cannot See several years ago. A large section of the book is set in St Malo and describes the life of a young blind girl from Paris living there during WWII. The descriptions of a fortified stone town with labyrithian streets at the end of a causeway and otherwise surrounded by water evoked images of a mini Mont Saint-Michel.
We had no idea it is in fact a very popular tourist destination, especially in the summer for the English, who arrive via direct ferries from Portsmouth and several other UK ports.
St Malo was built as a fortified city in the 12th century. Castle walls surround it on the landward side with entry restricted to gates opening from a plaza at the end of a short causeway from the mainland.
The best way to appreciate the physicality of the town is the walk around the ramparts, peering over the side.
And then looking out to sea.
Just off the coast is the small tidal island of Grand Be. For just two hours either side of low tide it can be reached on foot from the beach outside the St Malo walls. The crumbling remains of an ancient fort can just be seen from St Malo, but not the tomb of French writer Chateaubriand, a native of St Malo who is buried on the side facing the sea.
Beyond it is even smaller Petit Be, another tidal island accessible on foot only at low tide. In the late 1600s, a string of installations were constructed as a defence against marauding British and Dutch fleets. As well as reinforcing the city’s fortified walls, a fort was built on Petit Be.
And just for good measure, Fort National was built on yet another tidal island nearby.
The aggression wasn’t all one way. In the 17th and 18th centuries St Malo became a major port for merchant ships and corsairs – French privateers who set off from here to extract tribute from English sailing ships using the Channel. These days the pirates have been replaced by yachts.
Within the walls the town is a maze of cobblestone streets. It all looks original, although much of it is a very careful reconstruction. More than 8,000 German troops were stationed here in 1944 and another 12,000 were garrisoned across the causeway in Dinard. When the Allied invasion began, the local authorities asked the German commander, Colonel von Aulock to surrender to spare the town and its citizens. He refused, stating he ‘would defend St Malo to the last man, even if the last man has to be me’.
As described in Doerr’s novel, much of the town was destroyed by shelling and the street by street conflict which followed as the Germans resisted and then staged a fighting retreat. The colonel not only failed to hold the town, he ended up a prisoner of the Americans. 80% of the old city was destroyed in the process.
Meticulous reconstruction which continued until 1960 restored almost all of the area within the walls.
At the centre of the town, Cathedral St-Vincent was built in stages between the 12th and 18th centuries. It, too, was badly damaged in the war but has been painstakingly rebuilt. It has, however, a surprisingly modern altar. Installed in 1991, the bronze creation depicts the four Evangelists in animal form: a lion, a bull, an eagle and a man, all with wings.
Jacques Cartier lived in St Malo, and sailed from here to the New World in 1535. Arriving at the Saint Lawrence River, he was the first European to visit the indigenous villages which would later become the sites of Quebec City and Montreal. He took back to Europe the local word ‘kanata’, meaning a group of houses, naming and claiming ‘the Country of Canadas’ for France. French settlement followed and Cartier was credited as the ‘discover’ of Canada and founder of Quebec (although Honfleur claims their man, Samuel de Champlain founded Quebec as it was he who first established a European settlement there, but that was not until 1608).
A plaque on the floor of the cathedral marks the very spot where he received the blessing of the bishop of Saint Malo before his history changing voyage.
The town has plenty of restaurants and bars for the tourists. There’s one of those horrid petite tourist trains and you can do boat tours to see the town from the sea. It was worth a day visit but no longer, we thought.
This one is like something out of Monty Python’s Life of Brian. On a rocky headland about 5km north of St Malo, a deaf, mute priest lived a hermit’s life from 1894 to 1910. For over 13 of those years he chiselled hundreds of figures into the cliff, now known as the Sculptured Rocks of Rotheneuf.
A common myth is that he was creating unkind depictions of various members of the Rotheneufs, a local family with whom he had an axe to grind.
That actually isn’t true. Although some are local people, his creations run the spectrum from people to animals to events in the new world – note the one with palm trees, which references France’s exploratory forays into the South Pacific – and mythical creatures.
Art Deco and street art. Two of our favourite things. So visiting the town of Saint Brieuc was a no brainer. We know of no other place where you can get a map marking both.
Saint Brieuc has a street art festival every year where new pieces are commissioned and existing ones celebrated. Some are fairly traditional.
Others are quite funky.
Quite a contrast to the preserved Art Deco.
This building, built as a department store, was designed to evoke the ocean going liners of its time.
These glass mosaic-clad buildings were once workshops for the craftsmen who made many of the town’s mosaic fronts.
The jewel in the crown is undoubtedly the Chapelle de La Maison Saint Yves created by a mosaic artisan in 1927.
Even the crypt is a work of mosaic art.
We really enjoyed our six days in Dinan. Brittany is big and we only saw a little. Absolutely we will be back.
We returned the hire car in Rouen so we spent just two nights there, enough time for a brief jaunt around the major sights. First up, of course, that cathedral. So big, it’s impossible to get the whole thing in a photo front on from the other side of the square.
So ornate, no wonder Monet decided on Impressionism rather than realism. Imagine trying to paint a faithful reproduction of this.
Legend has it that the 75 metre Tour de Buerre (Butter Tower) – the big one on the right – was funded from ‘donations’ made by wealthy citizenry in exchange for a dispensation allowing them to eat butter during Lent.
Housed in a medieval tower house, Historial Jeanne D’Arc is an immersive experience. You don a head set and as you walk from room to room, it triggers visual projections on the walls and the audio tells the story of Joan of Arc’s rise to fame, execution for heresy, posthumous rehabilitation and elevation to sainthood.
The Eglise Saint-Maclou is built in Flamboyant Gothic style, and flamboyant is definitely an accurate description.
Many of the saintly heads on its facade were decapitated during the French Wars of Religion.
The Renaissance arch of the Gros Horloge (Giant Clock) is ornately carved and the clock itself is an absolute work of art.
Some lovely streets of half timbered houses.
And lastly, here’s one out of left field. The Musee Des Secq Tournelles houses what is said to be one of the world’s premier collections of wrought iron objects. Which truly begs the question – how many museums of wrought iron objects are there in the world? Some pieces are true works of art. To borrow a pun from the Lonely Planet, ‘it’s riveting’. There’s everything from street signs to snuff boxes, lamp posts to moustache curlers.
And just to prove that for once Julie wasn’t running late, a photo of the Art Deco railway station which she photographed on the way to our train to Lyon.